The Car Saga, Part 1
The car had made it to Gibsonton, only bucking slightly twice and both times just after I had had the spark plug wires inspected and the spark plugs changed at Ahrens Z-Car Specialist in Gainesville, so I could imagine that the problem was gone. “I can’t guarantee that this is the problem,” Don Ahrens had said, “but anything else is going to involve taking apart the engine, and that’ll cost 400 bucks.” Since the spark plugs were marginal when I left California, and since Ahrens had already spent half an hour driving and overdriving along rural Florida roads with me, and since I actually had absolutely no idea why the car was acting up, $97 inclusive had seemed very reasonable.
Gibsonton, where Michael lives, is not actually a town, technically, but a census-designated place in a county. It was once famed—if that’s the right word—as the winter home for sideshow performers from the Ringling Brothers circus, which had its winter home in Sarasota, about 30 miles south. In other words—and, I stress, not mine—“Gibtown” was the circus freak capital of the world.
Those days are dying out, just like sideshows themselves. Or the original sideshows, rather: Today the word signifies an illegal drag race that takes place late at night, irregularly, locations changing before the police can find them, souped up cars revving engines and flying through streets that you hope are empty.
Gibsonton couldn’t support this new type of sideshow, not if it wanted to. For one thing, the roads mostly cul-de-sac in beige and white tract homes, or, in the older areas, turn to dirt. The main street is 41, the old Tamiami Trail, which was the main link between Tampa and Miami when it opened in 1926 (?). On 41 you’ll find an area that looks much the same as everything else between Tampa and Naples, really, and probably like a lot of the rest of Florida as well. This is fast roads with no sidewalks and no shoulder; strip malls large and small, anchored by a Publix supermarket or a Dollar General; and the support structures for an automotive world: brake specialists, air conditioning specialists, gas stations, oil change and tune up factories.
The post office in Gibsonton may once have had a counter specially made for dwarves, but even a meek question to the clerk about it will elicit a brusque reply. “That was a long time ago,” she’ll say, and then walk off.
Michael lives in one of the new developments, a gated area named King’s Lake Townhomes. The condo association has just put in a fountain in front, which Michael hates, and the gates don’t really work, and the fees keep increasing. In front of the development is a sidewalk that goes nowhere, ending in small bushes and trees to one side and overgrown grass to the other. Eventually these open spaces may be turned to developments as well, and the sidewalk continued, but a fundamental problem will remain: there isn’t anywhere to walk to.
So while Michael loves his physical place, loves the inside of the apartment, he’s not in love with its location. Mostly when he comes home from work he stays inside. Going to a movie, or biking, or doing a hundred other things all involves a drive. Not that Michael, or anyone else there, is without blame, for their agency is, obviously, their own, but it’s frighteningly easy to understand how you can get caught up in a lifestyle where you never leave your house.
One last thing about the name. It doesn’t fit at all, so much so that it would be shocking, if only it weren’t so typical.1 As a visitor, as someone not used to it, the actual shameless suggestiveness of the name—a kindly king, a lake, a town, a home—was and is surprising. But nothing about it is real. There’s no king, of course, since the development is new; and the lake is really more of a pond that takes a good 18 minutes to circumnavigate by foot; and they aren’t really townhouses so much as row houses, but I suspect the developer, and perhaps the residents, don’t know the difference.
To be fair, to their owners, they are most certainly home.
1 A development nearby—a landlocked development in typical American tract home style—is called Tuscany Bay.